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The Fig Tree, the Cardinal and a Fig and Honey Clafoutis Recipe

My father had the most magnificent fig tree in his yard.  It was about twenty-five feet tall and the breadth of its branches was almost as wide.  Though he would never actually confirm it, the rumor is that he bred the tree using cuttings smuggled here from a bigger and even more magnificent fig tree that sits on the grounds of his ancestral home in Italy.  I have seen that original tree with my own eyes, and eaten its fruit.  It is amazing!

Dad’s fig tree was the jewel in his garden.  He babied and fussed over it.  He nurtured it through winters that were too cold and summers that were too hot.  That tree was the Goldilocks of fig trees.  Everything about it was just right, including the lush, moist fruit that grew from it.  Dad’s figs were almost the size of small fists!  Ripened by the sun, their flesh was so sweet that droplets of dew-like nectar oozed freely from them.   There was nothing – and, I mean nothing, people – that could rival the taste of my father’s figs.

Almost five years ago, on a grey November day, cancer stole my father away.  Within two weeks, the fig tree dropped all of its leaves, shriveled up and died.  I kid you not.  It was like the tree was in mourning and died of a broken heart. The only sign of life that has come from that tree since is the occasional appearance of a gorgeous, crimson cardinal, who swoops in from time to time and perches itself on a bare, brittle branch.   The bird just sits there, calmly looks around for a minute or two, and then flies off again.

None of us has the heart to chop down the fig tree.  Dad loved that tree, and to do so would almost be like losing him all over again.  So it still stands in its place beside the house as a bittersweet reminder of what once was.

Perhaps it is because of all of those wonderful, homegrown fresh figs I’ve devoured in my life, that I’m in so love with them.    Even now, I have a hard time passing them up when I find them at the market.  Sadly, they’re not quite the same when they come out of a plastic container.   I still buy them however, even though I’m often disappointed.

Another thing I can’t pass up is a good deal.  A few days ago, my market was having a BOGO sale on fresh figs.  They looked really lovely, so I slipped two quarts in my shopping cart, hoping that they would be good.  As I suspected, they were all style and no substance.  Out of the two dozen or so that I had, only about six were worth eating.  The rest were a little hard and dry, and the only thing I could think of that might save them was heat.  I find it intriguing how stewing, baking or roasting lackluster fruits can bring them back to life.  I’ve tried it with  berries [1], peaches [2], tomatoes and now, figs.  It works every time.

I thought about making some kind of tart with my figs, but honestly, I wasn’t in the mood to make a crust.  So, I decided that they would be just as delicious in a clafoutis.  For those who don’t know, a clafoutis is a French dessert where fruit is baked in a custard base.  Think of it as a crustless pie.   Traditionally, a clafoutis is made with cherries, but almost any kind of firm fruit will work well.   I love the combination of figs and honey, so I also decided to use that instead of sugar.

Despite its fancy, French name, making a clafoutis is very easy.  The first thing you need to do is cut up your fruit and artfully arrange them in a pie plate or glass baking dish.

Then, whizz up the rest of the ingredients in a blender and pour it over the fruit.

Bake the clafoutis until the custard sets and the top is nicely browned.

Look at how pretty it is!  And it tastes as good as it looks, too.  The custard was rich and creamy, with soft floral notes from the honey and the splash of orange flour water I also added.    Once baked, the figs took on a soft, jammy quality, and their sweetness intensified.   It was a lovely and elegant dessert that took hardly any effort at all.

I wish I had known about things like clafoutis when my father was around.  As delightful as this one was, I can’t help but wonder how spectacular it could have been with his figs.

*Photo of cardinal from iStockphoto.com